Imagine you have the drums and guitars (literally) of Pianos Become the Teeth, the vocals (figuratively) of The National, and glitchy, sampled production all on one disk. The result is part Americana, part classic rock, part post-hardcore, part Northeast indie. And it’s called it’s simply called LP1.
Even though two thirds of THE SHENANDOAH ELECTRIC COMPANY are members of Pianos Become the Teeth (David Haik on drums, Michael York on guitars, bass, and synth), the addition of Wes Young as vocalist is the defining difference of the band. He transmutes would-be rock songs into some degree of alt-country with ease, but he wields a certain bluesy baritone that sits under a layer of distortion that might make Julian Casablancas envious at times so pinning this act to any singular genre seems inadequate. It’s fever-dream folk.
It’s the sampling and the use of Teenage Engineering’s esteemed OP-1 that give LP1 its distinctly haunted characteristic. Sounds are clipped in and out, chopped and distorted and bent with plunderphonic force. This isn’t new on its own, but it’s certainly rare for an original rock band with vocals.
The result straddles the line between the emotional dynamic of San Fermin, The National, Murder by Death, and Orville Peck and the energy of Pianos, Caracara, and HEALTH. If this sounds confusing, it’s honestly kind of is. It’s not a stretch to say this is a niche sort of album with a high degree of experimentation. And the experimentation isn’t bad if you approach it purely. But the next Pianos album this is not. Sometimes a slight nod will surface in the arrangements, but this project is a beast of its own – one just as formidable, I might add.
And the three-piece waste no time making an impression. “This Has to Work” sets the standard, with its glitchy, pastiche sound. “Coronation Day” follows, a song that reminds me of Springsteen-era rock that starts primarily with guitar and vocals before Young belts cryptic notions about basket-weavers before unwinding even further into layering vocals parts that seem to dissolve into each other.
As far as the rock end of things goes, “Hot Mess” is the track of choice. The drums feel adjacent to Wait for Love and form the backbone of the track. Young echoes, “One in the same” in a hypnotizing fashion as the underlying instrumental bed contorts and rises. Maybe it’s the simplicity of the track that’s so inviting – that there is nothing obstructing the energy-centers of the song from taking center stage – that makes it so powerful. Obviously the band thought there was something at play, too. “Hot Mess” was released as a single.
“Pillar of Salt” is the most exemplary of the band’s experimental bent, kind of like a Radiohead-meets-Bioshock-soundtrack kind of amorphous wall of noise.
“N. Howard Street” inversely is another rock track, perhaps the most melodic of the bunch on the guitar end. Synths are abruptly peppered in, but it never feels too chaotic. And the lyrics certainly have a sense of time and place, with various events and memories laid out across the lyrics. By the end, the vocals are almost at a whisper. It’s subtleties like this that make this album so intriguing.
And putting these two tracks back to back certainly has its own implications. The songs move from one extreme to another without barricade; it’s hard to know if the band will channel John Mark McMillan or Thom Yorke.
“Fools Like Us” is arguably the last single-friendly track on the record. Its refrain is simple but hits hard: “When you love someone, you love them all the way.” But what might be a mindless statement in any number of other songs is inevitably shrouded in a sense of haunting intensity. Layers of disembodied voices spiral in the background. Percussion moves at a hammer-and-anvil pace. It’s earthen, dark, and dreamy all the same.
There’s a seamless fade into “Basye”, the closing track and namesake of where the album’s vision came to life. This is another of the more formless tracks, one that feels like a disintegrating tape discovered in the woods that fails on first listen.
Regarding the album, Young said, “LP1 is about our home, the people we’ve known in our brave city for decades and how change comes just the same way the earth moves through its seasons. It just does because it doesn’t know how not to.”
And this sentiment really feels like the driving force behind the sound. But mapping sonic texture to a specific place is something rarely accomplished in isolation. We know what California sounds like because of the Beach Boys. We hear Chicago through America Football. We hear New York in old school hardcore. But what on earth does Virginia sound like?
Arguably, it’s something like what listeners will find on LP1. Fellow Virginian orchestral rockers Vertica gave us an eerie, at times heavy, concept album about history, generational sins, and ghosts both literal and figurative in 2014. Norfolk’s Over the Ocean gave us a post-rock opus about death and suffering in 2013. It seems that haunting, heavy, and heartfelt are the key ingredients here.
And rest assured, THE SHENANDOAH ELECTRIC COMPANY follow suit. This record’s folk core is never fully concealed, but it is certain run through circus mirrors and smoke machines to some degree. Young’s voice is a steady anchor throughout, keeping things from ever getting too unhinged. York’s instrumental arrangements range from familiar to chaotic, but regardless of how they manifest, they’re powerful storytelling tools through these winding songs. And Haik’s drumming is certainly not the least inconsequential – his pacing and nuances are critical the emotional landscape at play.
This isn’t a record for everyone, but it’s certainly one that will find welcome arms nonetheless. These are powerful songs that carry as much force as they do catchiness. And at center of it all, the stories are truly heartfelt.